From the author: I found the door on the third day after we moved into the new house, and the eighth day of the summer holidays. The door was behind a big empty bookcase which, if things had been normal to begin with, Mum and Dad would have filled straight away. But they weren't.
By Trent Jamieson
I found the door on the third day after we moved into the new house, and the eighth day of the summer holidays. The door was behind a big empty bookcase which, if things had been normal to begin with, Mum and Dad would have filled straight away. But they weren't. I'm still not sure why I decided to find out what was behind the bookcase, though I can imagine what Mum would say.
"What possessed you to look behind the bookcase is what possesses you to read books, Julia. You are a curious, imaginative soul, and an empty bookcase, well… what might lie behind it is exactly the sort of thing that would appeal to you. The type of books you read, the books that would normally be contained within that bookcase, are all about magical doorways."
Which isn't precisely true, but Mum is given to hyperbole. I can say that I expected to see the door, andbut though I wasn't really surprised to find it, I hadn't believed it would be thereI really hadn't expected to find anything there. I knew the difference between the worlds I inhabited in my head, and the one I clumped around in, in my shoes.
I moved the bookcase by degrees. Sort of rocked it to one side. It was rather heavy, but after a couple of teetering swings, I could see the door. I shifted it a little more, creating a wedge of space, and then crept in. I was sweaty. It was hot outside, but here near the door it was quite cool. The bookcase shuddered dangerously behind me, but I ignored it, because here was a door, and in my head, I knew it would open inwards, away from the back of the bookcase, and out into…
And it did.
This would not have been peculiar, if the bookcase hadn't been against the rear wall of the house. You can see where this is going, because if you're reading this, you probably like the same sort of books I do. What the door opened onto shouldn't have been there.
The door opened onto a cold and dusty room, like a great hall. Well, more like a warehouse. It was a big room either way, filled with bulging cotton bags, dirty with age. The bags were stacked to shoulder height, with the contents of several spilled out onto the floor. .
Coins. The bags were stuffed with coins. I took a step towards the first stack, and the door shut behind me.
This wasn't a good thing, obviously, and not just because I didn't know where I was. I could feel a presence, a definite presence there with me. It was aware of me, just as I was aware of it. I heard it moving. Somewhere a bag burst, and coins tumbled loudly onto the floor.
Coins. The bags were stuffed with coins.
Something started to run. I could hear its footsteps crashing towards me.
I snatched open the door. Bet you thought it was locked, eh? It wasn't. I slammed it behind me, and pushed the bookcase back. A job faster and easier when the adrenalin's pumping, my heart racing, my hands sweating. I was shaking so much I nearly flattened myself with the bookcase. But I managed to get it back against the wall. I thought I heard the door creak open, and then click shut again. I didn't put my ear against the back of the bookcase, because that was an open invitation for a knife in the head, or to hear some sort of creepy whisper. Preferable to the knife, sure, but I'd rather avoid both. Whatever was in there had decided not to follow. Hey, if I could move that bookcase by myself, then pretty much anyone could.
I went outside and checked the back of the house, just to make sure it hadn't collided with any mysterious looking warehouses. It was just the back of the house, up on its stilts, and a swing set and a steep bit of lawn leading to the brown drift and bends of the Namoi river.
Tell my parents about the door?
We both know there was no point, they'd move the bookcase and there would just be a wall. Maybe the door would come back, or maybe not, but it wouldn't be when my parents were around. And they had other stuff to deal with, much more important stuff. It's not like the room was filled with antiques or severed heads, just coins. Besides, I liked the idea of the door. You do, too.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that door, sitting on the swing out the back with my dog, Bernard, and staring across the narrow brown flow of the Namoi River. I went to the library and borrowed some books because mine were still in boxes, and. I read about coins, and the sort of things that might keep them. I read histories and mythologies, stuff about economics and gods. I put in some serious study.
The room was still, cold, and silent, filled with those dusty bags. I picked up a coin, a twenty-cent piece, then another, smaller coin, one roughly made. There was no platypus, nor was there a head of the Queen on the heads (obverse) side, but a man in a crown, and on the tails side, the reverse side – see, I had been reading about coins – was a man riding a horse.
"Roman. Definitely Roman," I said to Bernard, who was resting his head on the brick I'd pushed against the door. "That's a denarius."
Bernard barked, then began to growl, staring behind me and into the warehouse. I dropped the coins and ran for the door, closed it, after kicking the brick away and, once again, managed very quickly to push the bookcase against the wall.
"Not going to do that again," I said to Bernard.
This time I put my head against the bookcase, and heard the door open, heard the deep breaths of something, and then the door slammed shut. The bookcase wobbled.
"So not going to do that again."
But we both knew that wasn’t true. There was a magical door behind my bookcase, and as long as that bookcase was empty, I was just going to keep looking.
You didn't even need to toss a coin on it. It was an absolute certainty.
I left it a few days before I rocked pushed the bookcase back from the wall. The door was still there. Come on, we both knew it would be. I whistled and Bernard was at my heels. I turned the handle, and the door opened.
Bernard and I were through. The door slammed behind me.
At precisely the same time a huge, hard hand clapped over my shoulder. I really wished people wouldn’t do stop doing that.
"Hey," I said, wrenching my shoulder away, though not out of the grip. The hand was too big and strong for that.
"I knew you'd come back," a deep voice growled. "They always come back."
"Who always comes back?" I glanced around, then up and up.
One of the tallest people I had ever seen was grinning down at me, his face gaunt, old, and triumphant. "Thieves, of course."
He put my brick on the floor at my feet.
"I'm not a thief."
He waved a callused index finger in the air. "They always say that."
"I'm not a "they" either."
"Well you're something, maybe a numismatist."
"No," I said. "My interest in coins has only been very recent."
He sighed. "You're really too clever for your own good. There's a word for that too."
"No. Smart alec. Come with me."
He let go of my shoulder, and walked down the aisle between the piles of bags. I spun on my heel and tried the door. It was locked. I tugged at it hard.
"Going to take a bit more than that," the man said. He had crouched down, and was patting Bernard on the head. Bernard gave me a big doggy grin.
"Traitor," I said.
"Now, let's go for a walk," the man said. Bernard took to the idea much more enthusiastically than me.
It was a good five minutes before we reached the other end of the warehouse, weaving through the stacks of coin bags, with nothing to stare at but the old man's back. He wore a pale blue t-shirt; sweat stained dampened and stuck the shirt between his shoulder blades. His shirt was tucked into jeans far too big for him; large man's jeans, belted high around his stomach in bunches of denim. He mumbled things beneath his breath, but I couldn't hear anything he said, until we reached the end of the warehouse, where there was enough space for a table and chairs, and another door.
The old man motioned at one of the chairs: and I sat down in it.
"I like coins," the old man said, once he was seated. "I like their weight; they're more tangible than notes. You know what I'm saying? You can knock a person out with a bag of coins. I like coin tricks, too."
He reached over and pulled a coin from my ear. He coughed, five coins popped from his mouth to the palm of his hand.
"So why are you here?"
"Because I opened the door, because I was curious."
The old man shook his head. "Don't mess with me, kid. I don't like to be messed with."
I made to protest, but he silenced me with a stare. "Why the fantasy? What are you trying to tame?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You tell me, it's your story."
"I just wanted to find a magical door, and Charon's coins."
"So, I've got a name now.you've named me. I prefer Urshanabi by the way, it's older more dignified."
I looked at him. "This wasn't how I meant it to turn out." I said. "I was supposed to find the coins, maybe start spending them. On nothing too ambitious at first, bags of lollies, second hand books. But every coin I spend wakes up someone that is dead. The dead start coming back to life."
Urshanabi snorted. "Dead coming back to life. You like that stuff? Let me tell you, the dead don't come back to life." He opened his big flat hands and there were coins; dozens of them, pennies, nickels, drachma and siliquae. Every one obversed; all those serious heads staring at nothing. "Kings and queens, emperors and gods, all of them dead. None of them have come back." He threw his hands in the air, and the coins went up, and then landed on the table, a brief clattering rain. "All that's left are the coins."
He gathered the coins up in his hands, and then they were gone. "You're not telling the whole story. There's that hint of something being wrong. Why isn't the bookcase full? Why aren't your parents home?"
"That's easy," I said. You know what I said, because you read stories like these, so do I. "Dad's dying."
"See there's that death thing again," Urshanabi coughed a coin onto his hand. "What is it, kid, cancer?"
But this is a story about magical doors, not days and weeks in hospital. People stepping through them in search of adventure, not slipping away. “So what does this say about you?" Urshanabi stared at me. "I know you weren't trying to steal my coins. Maybe you would have, but I only deal with definites. There's no would, just did or didn't, dead or going to be. And let me tell you, you're all going to be." He stood up and opened the other door. "You want to check out the River Styx?"
I couldn't resist.
I wish I had. It was disappointing. The door led onto a beach: grey sand that stretched as far as I could see in either direction. The river wasn't as wide as I thought it should be, maybe twenty metres across, the opposite shore obscured by mist. People were wanderingwandered up and down this side, looking confused and threadbare, like their deaths had been ill-conceived.
"Who are they?"
"People who can't afford to pay, or didn't think they needed to. They're stuck here, on this side of the shore. Some people can't even afford small change, Julia, or they die too soon, too swiftly to prepare. The river doesn't care, nor do I. Can't afford to in this job."
Then I saw my father.
"I understand now, kid. Why you wanted that story, why you wanted the dead to come back to life. But see, he hasn't crossed. He didn't have any coins. " Urshanabi gave a tight little smile. "How long's your dad been dead?"
I held his hand when he died, and he held mine too, and then he didn't. Mum kissed his face, and he didn't look peaceful, just still and worn out. His fingers cooled quickly, but I held them.
He didn't see me now. I waved at him, I yelled, I started down the beach towards him, but one of Urshanabi's big hands gripped my shoulder.
"You only get one goodbye," he said. "You've seen enough, kid."
"But, maybe he was waiting for me. Maybe he knew about the door, and was hoping, and waiting."
"So sad." Denarii streamed from Urshanabi's eyes, and tumbled from his long cheeks. "Your father's dead, so sad. All we've got here are dead people, and you." He stopped, looking thoughtful. "You got any coins, kid? You want to go for a ferry ride?"
I didn't. Not then, not for as long as I could bear to breathe. I ran back across the sand, back inside, through the moneybag-piled warehouse, past all those coins, and through the door.
"That you, Julia?" My mother called from her room, and I could tell she'd been crying, could hear it in her voice.
I walked in, sat on the bed and kissed her, and she didn't stop crying, but she held me. I wanted to tell her about the door, about seeing Dad, but I didn't because this isn't that sort of story. It would have just hurt her. I couldn't even make that sort of small change, and neither would you either because it wouldn't make any difference. People die and you only get one goodbye, if you're lucky. I would have preferred to have stolen some of that money from Urshanabi, and had those adventures with the people coming back to life, and maybe that would have been a better story.
After a while, Mum let me go. I slid from the bed and went out, unpacked my books, and filled the big bookcase which I had pushed back against the wall.
One day I might unstack the books, and move the bookcase from the wall, and stare at that door, thinking about all those coins, and my father who for one reason or another hadn't had enough to cross the river. And whom I'd not had a chance to talk to because that's the way it is, but damn the rules, maybe this time....
Then again, the door probably wouldn't be there.
You know how these things work.
This story originally appeared in Shiny Issue 1.